07/09/23 – Tug of War – Elder Alan Willadsen


July 9, 2023
6th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Elder Alan Willadsen

“Mom, there’s nothing to do!”

“Have you gone over to Tommy’s house?”

“Mommy, I’m bored.”

“Have read the library books we checked out?”

“But . . . Tommy’s not home and I’ve read two of the books but the others are too hard.”

Surprised and a little exasperated, Dick and Jane’s mother pulled out the list of thirty things to do over the summer they had worked on together.  All these activities were planned to keep the children occupied, stimulated in a positive way, and out of harm’s way.  She read through it, aloud, and each item was greeted with a groan or negative response.  The school only let out last week.  It would be a long two and a half months.

This exchange, or rather the children’s responses, provides a way of looking at today’s readings from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome and the first part of the Gospel passage.  Even though the family had planned these activities together, both mother and children are effectively saying, “I do not understand my own actions.  “For I do not do what I want (enjoy summer vacation), but I do the very thing I hate (do nothing and complain).”  Jesus describes the people in the crowd as not happy whether dancing or mourning, playing the flute or wailing—in short, very discontented, like Dick and Jane who are not happy doing things but not happy being idle.

“To live coherent and undivided lives is hard work. We decide on one kind of behavior, only to act in another way. Sometimes we wrestle with how to live on the outside in a way that doesn’t corrupt the wholeness we’ve come to prize on the inside. Other times we seek to do good only to succumb to something wrong deep within us. The tongue-tying words of the apostle Paul describe this second tendency: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

The tug of war between wearing a halo on our head and rottenness on our sleeve is hardly an adolescent phenomenon. Many of us look throughout the course of life for that integrative power that will help our mind, heart, soul, and body cohere.”[1]

Some of you may remember the comedian, Flip Wilson.  One of the characters he created was Geraldine Jones, a sassy, liberated, Southern woman.  When asked about her outrageous clothing and why she would buy it, her response always was, “The devil made me do it.”  Doesn’t that sound like Paul—and us?  Sin has power over us.  We were warned way back in Genesis 4, “The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  There is a constant struggle between following the Creator’s law and a law rooted in our humanity.  Paul says it a little more clearly in Galatians 5:17: “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.

Lest we get too comfortable—remember, Reinhold Niebuhr said it is the job of the preacher to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”—sin is not just failing to obey the Ten Commandments.  It is anything that separates us from God or neighbor.  Sin is anything that fails to show and live out care for other people, our self, or God’s creation.  Shawnthea Monroe, in her review of Standing Naked Before God said, “These are modern, liberal sins: reliance on fossil fuels, addiction to social media, and lack of self-care. People confess to being controlling, introverted, short-tempered, and pessimistic. Some confess to being unlucky in love, others to being bad with money.”[2]

Many of Paul’s letters were addressed to a predominantly Greek community.  Remember “know thyself” was one of three sayings inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Paul acknowledges the conflict is “within me”, focusing on himself and his relationship to God, suggesting this passage may have been influenced by the Greek world.  Is Paul saying he lacks self-understanding as a matter of fact or out of frustration from not being able to exercise self-control?  His (and our) conflict is an internal one, not one with the world.

External conflict, on the other hand, the one you and I face with the world, was one that Abraham was willing to experience.  Living in the promised land, but as a newcomer and a foreigner, could have been made easier by seeking a wife for Isaac from among the locals.  However, he purposely did not assimilate with his surrounding culture when he sent his servant back to his homeland.  In this respect we share faith with Abraham.  Our calling as Christians is to seek God’s will even when (not if) it leads to conflict with the surrounding culture.

Consider what else we learn from the tale in Genesis.  Members of Abraham’s household picked up on his faith, his deep abiding faith.  The servant acknowledges God and asks God for a sign.  When God gives him the sign, the servant both recognizes it and follows through on it, unlike Bruce Nolan in the 2003 film Bruce Almighty.  Asking for a sign is different from asking for a specific outcome.  Be honest with yourself:  have you asked for a sign?  If so, did you recognize it when you received it or in hindsight?

It seems to me God revealed Rebekah to Abraham’s servant because he possessed faith—the faith of his master, yet his own—in the creative, creating God of the universe.  What prompted Rebekah to go with the servant, if not God’s revelation to her?  Like Abraham and Sarah, she left everything to go to the unknown.  God also revealed to Rebekah she would be the mother of a great people, using words similar to those her grand-uncle Abraham had heard.

In response to the confirmation Rebekah would be Isaac’s wife, the servant first attaches signs of ownership (a nose ring and bracelets) then worships God for leading him the right way.  Worship is always the proper response to answered prayer.  Note that at both the start and end of this section the servant recognizes and acknowledges God’s blessings.  “The faith of this narrative is one in which things occur seemingly as they will and yet are credited to God. . .  The faith offered here is for those who are willing to be led [and] sets such faith precisely where it must be lived, between the old place abandoned and the new place not yet received.”[3]  That faith in which we are willing to be led is exactly what Jesus refers to in offering his yoke.

To put the Matthew passage in context, Jesus has just finished teaching his disciples and, at the start of chapter 11, he begins teaching and preaching in Galilee.  John’s disciples join the crowd and Jesus describes John as the Messiah’s herald.  I imagine Jesus sees some yawns and eye rolls in the crowd just before voicing his frustration: “But to what will I compare this generation?”

John the Baptist has lived a life of austerity “neither drinking wine or eating bread”, and he is thought to have a demon.  Jesus has brought new life and wholeness to countless people and has shown the world how to enjoy life yet he is called a glutton, a drunkard and is looked down upon for the people he associates with.  Which way is it, people?  The crowd could not be satisfied with their alternatives, neither could Dick and Jane.

The crowd is fickle and restless, not really sure what they want.  What do they want?  The crowd seems to be willfully seeking ways to reject or deny God’s messengers.  They will not here say this one is “just right.”  The people want what they want—they want their will to be done.  Such continual dissatisfaction could be relieved by hearkening to Jesus’s yoke—a refreshing one, easy and light, because he brings joy and peace with it.  What do we want from an encounter with Jesus?

“Jesus compared the people of His day to children who cannot be satisfied with any game or activity, whether festive or somber.  They rejected John the Baptist because of his ascetic lifestyle, only to turn around and reject Jesus because he ate and drank with sinners.  Their unreasonable actions reflected their lack of wisdom.[4]

In the second half of the Matthew passage, we hear Jesus’s words against apathy and self-importance.  Saying the good news is hidden from the wise and intelligent yet revealed to infants echoes of Jesus saying only the child-like can come to him.  For those who are self-important and consider themselves to be intelligent . . . “there are none so blind, as he who will not see,” as Ray Stevens sang.

In the last few verses of the Matthew passage, we hear a passage of Scripture nearly as familiar as the 23rd Psalm.  “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  It sounds soothing, comforting, and pastoral.  David Jeremiah suggests the phrase “I will give you rest,” is more like relief from boredom and Jesus is calling those who are oppressed by routine, monotony, overwork, responsibility, and tension.  We get lulled into an easy, tranquil state of mind and lose sight of the urgency present in this passage.

What do I want?  What does God want?  There is always a tug of war between the two.  Free will?  God acting?  Again, there is always a tug of war between the two.

Paul’s letter to the Roman church seems like a classic game of tug of war between our longing to obey God and our propensity to sin.  Aren’t we like Paul, captives and unwilling prisoners to the law of sin and death? Sin has power over me.  It is a heavy burden, relieved by recognizing signs God gives us and putting on the yoke of Jesus Christ.  Will you choose the law of sin and death or the law of love and life?

To God alone be the glory.  Amen and Amen.


[1] Peter Marty, writing in The Christian Century.  What makes for an undivided life? | The Christian Century

[2] https://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2015-09/standing-naked-god-molly-phinney-baskette

[3] Brueggemann, p. 202.

[4] JSB, p. 1299.




© Elder Alan Willadsen, 2023, All Rights Reserved
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